Sponsoring Cybathlon

Elisha Chauhan looks at how event organisers and marketing agency H+H Management have approached the sale and distribution of commercial rights for the 2016 Cybathlon.

On the face of it, as an event that is a cross between the Paralympic Games and a super robot show, Cybathlon is an attractive proposition to potential commercial partners looking to associate themselves with innovation and ground-breaking technology.

However, enlisting partners for next October’s event has proved to be a challenge for Switzerland-based H+H Management, which was given the task having worked on previous projects with ETHZ (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich) – the university where Cybathlon founder Professor Robert Riener is based.

“Finding sponsors for this event is different to say the least,” Jonas Maag, event manager at H+H Management, told SportBusiness International. “If a company is involved in the theme of Cybathlon – such as those in the medical, technology, hospitals and rehabilitation clinics sectors – then the response is quite good, but if you approach a beverage or insurance company, getting interest in a commercial deal is really difficult.

“This is mainly because the event is completely new – as we say in German, you’re selling a cat in a bag. Marketing an event that isn’t known is difficult because companies don’t know what the return on investment is going to be, whether or not the event will be a success, and they don’t really know if this niche sport will become mainstream.”

Cybathlon has a three-tier sponsorship model, with a maximum number of four partners set for the top two tiers. And despite Maag’s pragmatic assessment of the sales process, he has a robust list of commercial partners across the three tiers – albeit mostly consisting of organisations within the medical or robotic fields.

Getting interest in a commercial deal is like selling a cat in a bag

Current partners include VAMED, a major entity in the healthcare sector, working across project development, planning, construction and equipment supply. It operates in around 80 countries. Another international coup for Cybathlon is Hocoma, a company specialising in developing robotic devices for patients in need of prosthetics or aids – a perfect fit for the event, says Maag, particularly given Hocoma CEO Gery Colombo has worked alongside Riener for decades. Most notably, Hocoma was used as a platform to commercialise Riener’s robotic arm invention used for amputee rehabilitation. 

“Some of the main sponsors we have now will probably renew their sponsorship for the next Cybathlon event if it’s held outside of Switzerland, especially VAMED and Hocoma, which are both international companies,” adds Maag.

“However, the other two main sponsors [Zurich-based university hospital] Der Balgrist and [Zurich-based energy company] EKZ will probably not renew as they are not interested in an international presence for the event.”

Top-tier sponsors, including VAMED and Hocoma, are paying CHF50,000 ($54,300) for the privilege, while the price for a second-tier partnership is CHF40,000 ($43,500). In the third tier, which isn’t limited to set number of companies, Cybathlon has sponsorship deals in place that start at CHF10,000 ($10,900).

Maag says he is confident he will secure 20-30 partners in the third tier, which will be helped by the growing international presence of the event, particularly when signing partners outside the medical and robotic fields.

“It’s funny because we didn’t really begin with a marketing strategy, we published one video about the event on YouTube and that was already enough to get [UK public-service broadcaster] BBC, [international TV news channel] CNN and other international media outlets to become aware of Cybathlon,” he adds (see Broadcast Footprint below).

Beyond a Banner

According to Colombo, his company’s involvement in Cybathlon far exceeds supporting a friend; he says through the event his international robotics company can both learn from the other products available on the market and gets an opportunity to showcase its own technologies.

Hocoma hasn’t submitted a team into the event, nor has it committed to providing its services and technology for hire to teams as Brain Products has done (see Cybathlon: Particpants). However, Colombo believes there’s still plenty of time to either build a new prototype for the event or to organise a collaboration deal following the Cybathlon test event that takes place next month on July 13-15.

“I believe Cybathlon is a great initiative, and have been supporting it from the very moment Riener told me about the idea,” Colombo told SportBusiness International.

“Through Cybathlon, Hocoma will have the opportunity to get into contact with new researchers we don’t know yet, and it will be a nice networking platform. We will try to showcase our technology at the event, so hopefully our company will become much more visible.

“We’re going to evaluate our options when we grasp a view of how the event will look at the July rehearsal. After that we’ll consider sponsoring or working together with a participating team, going way beyond just putting our company name on a banner.”

Having invested CHF50,000 to become a main sponsor, Colombo is also on the advisory board for Cybathlon, helping Riener map-out the future direction for the event.

“Whether we get a full return on investment just from this one event next year is still a question, but I see this as a long-term investment. I hope that we can help Cybathlon to become a really big event in the future, something like the Paralympics,” he adds.

“We will absolutely renew our main sponsor deal in the future, even if the Cybathlon goes abroad into Seoul or Tokyo.”

Catering for All

Though Colombo believes the Cybathlon will be an entertaining spectacle, he emphasises that the event “should serve the purpose of showcasing new technology for rehabilitation patients”, and therefore its main ambition should be attracting more universities and investment into the field.

“The races were purposefully set out to incorporate daily life tasks so that Cybathlon can relate to relevant patients and professionals. Whether the general public will find this attractive and interesting is unknown. As I work in the industry I’m biased in thinking it is interesting,” he adds.

“Either way, attracting as many viewers as possible should not be the main purpose of the Cybathlon. I think it should be an even mix of catering for inside and outside of the field. Saying that, the more technology that is on show, the more interesting the event will be to the public anyway.”

Broadcast Footprint

Though it is still more than a year out from the inaugural Cybathlon in October 2016, organisers say they have piqued the interest of broadcasters who, rather than looking to buy rights for live coverage, are interested in creating documentaries that follow teams and organisers on the journey to the event.

These broadcasters are from the UK, Japan, United States and Germany according to Cybathlon communications officer Linda Seward.

Meanwhile, Swiss TV channel SRF was given the rights for Cybathlon free of charge in return for a commitment to broadcast the event live, and will look to make coverage available online, either live or on-demand.


To continue reading SportBusiness International's Cybathlon feature, please click on the links below:

Cybathlon: Robotic Races
Cybathlon: Participants

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